Experience a desert journey through the north African city of Tamerza and learn what southern Tunisia offers.
There’s something about the desert — monochromatic yet shadowed and seemingly endless. Patterns made in the sand by the oncoming sandstorm mesmerize me. Fortunately, Mohammed, the camel driver who leads the bizarre-looking beast I sit astride, is paying attention to where the one-humped camel is going.
Nothing as far as I can see in any direction, other than the clothes Mohammed and I are wearing, is machine-made. The camel’s so-called saddle consists of two short planks of wood held together by strands of brightly-colored cotton, a far cry from the finely tanned leather I got used to when I rode horses. I see sand moving in what looks like waves below my stirruped feet. This is my dream that keeps repeating. This is how I remember a visit to the Sahara Desert.
Stepping away from what I take for granted as “normal” turned out to be thought-provoking. How often, I ask myself, do I get off the carousel known as U.S. city living and think about something as seemingly simple — but in reality as complex — as a desert?
Tunisia by Bus, South to the Desert
Traveling through Tunisia by bus made it possible to appreciate vast stretches of nothing but sand. With each roll of the wheels, the familiar (at least for me) receded. In the towns there is sophistication in architecture and religion derived from North African and Arabic tribesmen as well as French and Spanish colonizers.
In the villages, life is in many ways quite primitive: Shops or stalls along the road and in markets that sell meat “advertise” their wares by hanging part of an animal’s carcass such as a camel’s head or a sheep’s skin, often still bloody, from a high hook. Women carry sacks of grain on their heads, while children herd goats, donkeys pull carts, camels graze alongside the road and men spend hours sitting in open-air cafes sipping coffee or mint tea.
Connections to my world get more tenuous as I head south into the desert. Since I do not speak Arabic, French (which I do speak, badly) is the only way I can converse with the Tunisians. I can’t call home because I can’t get a telephone connection. There are no newspapers. Television in the hotels where I stay, unlike the homes with satellite dishes, does not work. Or, at best, offers only channels in Arabic which I do not speak. Is connectivity over-rated I ask myself? Have I landed on another planet?
As if to validate this notion, the bus driver stops at a small canyon near Chott El Jerid. That’s where the “Star Wars 1: the Phantom Menace” scene with poor little R2 D2 being ambushed by the Jawas was shot. Further along the road, at Tatouine, in western Tunisia, are the “slave quarters.” These multi-story caves (created by those Hollywood wizards who are so good at making fake look real) are piled on top of one another. Kids will be fascinated to get a glimpse of the staircase that reaches those at the highest level. None of the caves has a door so it’s all rather spooky, but that’s the point.
Also en route south is the town of Douz, a sleepy place except on Thursdays, when the camel market is held. The buying and selling of camels is a colorful and pungent scene, as camels tend to smell badly.
It is also the locale of the annual Douz Festival, sometimes called the Sahara Festival, held most years in November or December. Some Tunisians think that as many as 50,000 of their countrymen, living in Tunisia and overseas, attend. The four-day event is also a time when tradition-bound Tunisian fathers look for suitable husbands for their daughters. Not yet a tourist attraction, the festival is almost a century old and includes camel races, dancing, and shows of horsemanship known as “fantasias.” Everyone dresses in colorful native costumes for this unique celebration.
An Oases in Tamerza
By the time we pulled into Tamerza, I felt like a nomad, tired from the 350-mile journey southwest from Tunis to the northern end of the Sahara desert, near the Algerian border. Framed by the Atlas Mountains and filled with palm trees, Tamerza, population 2,000, gives a visitor the sense that it is miles if not decades away from being spoiled. Don’t expect to find T-shirts (or anything else) with Tamerza on them. “Desert roses” of crystallized gypsum, sometimes colored but prettier when left natural, are the souvenirs of choice.
We check into The Tamerza Palace Hotel which looks out over a gorge onto a seemingly monochromatic maze. It is a Berber (indigenous non-Arab North African tribe) village deserted since the floods of 1969 and is hauntingly beautiful, particularly at sunrise, sunset and in the moonlight. Visitors who walk through the ruins get a sense of how tightly-knit and claustrophobic such a community must have been. Relatives still return to the site to pay their respects to those who lost their lives there.
Tamerza is an oasis, the word means “paradise.” Villages tend to grow around oases and water and Tamerza is just such a place. So are nearby Chebika and MidÃ¨s. The claim to fame of this region of El Jerid, apart from its starring role as the location for the movie “The English Patient”, is its shiny red train with leather and velvet upholstery built for the bey or king of Tunisia in 1899. The LÃ©zard Rouge (the Red Lizard) still runs through the Seldja gorge, but years of drought have ruined what was once a beautiful waterfall along the route.
The remains of the salt lake Chott el-Jerid add glitz to the desert. Not the kind you can buy, but the sparkle that results from sunlight hitting particles of salt that lie in lines across the sand. The colors – pinks, yellows, blues and greens -bounce upwards from the crystals. Although guides advise sticking to the road and away from the unstable sand, intrepid sports types have been known to take their sand yachts and skis across the Chott. I’m not sure how they do it, nor did I see anyone try.
Back home in Washington; it takes two rounds of laundry to rid my clothing of sand. After a few hours, I am doing the usual things: Reading newspapers, watching BBC television news, making and receiving telephone calls, and catching up on e-mail.
Connectivity has returned but in my mind I am still enjoying the desert.
Getting to Tamerza is not easy. By air, Tunisia is best reached via Paris, Rome or Milan. From Tunisia, there are flights on Tunisian Airlines to Tozeur, which is one hour by car from Tamerza.
Tamerza can only be reached by car, preferably a four-wheel drive with a local driver/guide who doesn’t get lost in the desert or flustered by sandstorms. Even intrepid drivers should think twice before driving in the Tunisian desert, a potentially hazardous experience. Passing drivers usually don’t stop to help and there is no such thing as AAA. Locally, group taxis are available but unreliable. For a car and driver, the Tunisian travel agency worth consulting is Atlantis Voyages.
Our hotel was certainly a family-friendly one. The Tamerza Palace (011 216 76 485 322) is not the only game in town but, for Americans used to more comforts than most, this would be a wise choice. The rooms are charming and, in spite of a one inch-thick mattress, as is the custom in Tunisia, comfortable. Travelers should be aware the phone doesn’t always work, so try again or email the hotel at [email protected].
Dining is varied so picky eaters will be able to find something to eat. Tunisian food, considered by some to be Med-rim with a kick, I would call okay but not great. The fish and fruit, however, are delicious, especially dates and oranges. It’s not for nothing that the Romans called Tunisia their fruit basket.
On the menu at nearly every meal and in nearly every restaurant or hotel, is Salade Tunisienne, which has the same ingredients as Salade NiÃ§oise. Tunisians enjoy putting harissa, the hot red pepper condiment, on their food and they have no trouble downing a brik, which is a deep fried egg or fish and not a phonetic description of how it feels in the stomach. As for drinks, booze is hard to come by. Tunisia is predominantly Muslim and therefore, dry; however, there is one beer, Celtia, and three local wines. Even the natives drink bottled water only. It is wise to follow their lead.
For general information about Tunisia, the best contact in the U.S. is the Tunisian National Tourist Office (202/466-2546) at 1515 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20005.
Up Close with Camels: Winter Festivities
Originally a Bedouin marriage market, the Sahara Douz Festival has grown into a worldwide celebration attracting thousands of people every year. The 41st Session takes place the last week of December 2008, when families can get an up-close and personal look at Tunisian customs and culture at this authentic and rustic celebration.
Some of the heart-pumping events include camel and greyhound racing, equestrian military exercises known in Maghreb as “fantasias”, and local treats and fresh, harvested dates. For more information and current dates, please visit http://www.festivaldouz.org.tn or email [email protected].
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